Harry Whelehan

Harry Whelehan (born 17 February 1944) is an Irish barrister and judge who served as President of the High Court from 15 November 1994 to 17 November 1994, a Judge of the High Court from November 1994 to December 1994 and Attorney General of Ireland from 1991 to 1994.[1][2]

Harry Whelehan
President of the High Court
In office
15 November 1994  17 November 1994
Nominated byGovernment of Ireland
Appointed byMary Robinson
Preceded byLiam Hamilton
Succeeded byDeclan Costello
Judge of the High Court
In office
13 November 1994  4 December 1994
Nominated byGovernment of Ireland
Appointed byMary Robinson
23rd Attorney General of Ireland
In office
26 September 1991  11 November 1994
TaoiseachCharles Haughey
Albert Reynolds
Preceded byJohn L. Murray
Succeeded byEoghan Fitzsimons
Personal details
Born (1944-06-12) 12 June 1944 (age 77)
Dublin, Ireland
Political partyFianna Fáil
Alma mater

He was President of the High Court for two days in 1994 before resigning over the Brendan Smyth affair.

Attorney general

Taoiseach Charles Haughey appointed Whelehan Attorney General of Ireland in the Fianna Fáil–PD coalition on 26 September 1991,[3] replacing John L. Murray, who had been nominated to the European Court of Justice. Whelehan was retained by Albert Reynolds after Haughey's resignation, and reappointed by the Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition after the 1992 general election.

X Case

In 1992, Whelehan was the Attorney General in the extremely controversial "X Case", in which he sought an injunction to prevent "Miss X", a teenager pregnant from a sexual assault, travelling abroad for an abortion to the United Kingdom. This was a test case of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which guarantees the "right to life of the unborn". In a 2010 documentary, government press secretary Seán Duignan said some ministers felt Whelehan should have turned a blind eye to the case.[4] Whelehan expressed regret for "the upset, the sadness and the trauma which was visited on everybody involved", but felt he had a duty to uphold the Constitution, and that only he had locus standi for the fetus involved.[4]

Beef tribunal

Whelehan intervened in the Beef Tribunal to prevent Minister Ray Burke being questioned about cabinet discussions on the beef industry. His argument that cabinet confidentiality was paramount was controversially accepted by the Supreme Court.[4] The Seventeenth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland passed in 1997 loosened this restriction.

Brendan Smyth

In March 1993, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) requested the extradition of Brendan Smyth, a priest arrested for child sex abuse. Eight months later, in November 1993, the request was still at the Office of the Attorney General, when the RUC informed the Office that Smyth had voluntarily given himself up in Northern Ireland.[5] In October 1994, a UTV documentary on Smyth suggested the delay in processing the request was deliberate. Whelehan stated he had not known of its existence.[6] The delay was variously blamed on short staffing in the office and the complexity of the case, which might fall under a previously unused provision of the law on extradition.[7] Reynolds later won a libel suit against The Times of London over an article on the affair.[8] Whelehan prepared a memorandum on the Smyth case for the Taoiseach, which was delivered on 15 November 1994. This claimed the case was the first one to involve section 50 of the Extradition Act 1965 (inserted by section 2(1)(b) of the Extradition (Amendment) Act 1987).[9]

High Court appointment and resignation

Thomas Finlay retired as Chief Justice of Ireland in September 1994, and Liam Hamilton was promoted from President of the High Court to replace him.[10] In early 1994, when the government was considering forthcoming judicial appointments, Whelehan expressed an interest in becoming President of the High Court and a Judge of the High Court.[10] This was opposed by Tánaiste Dick Spring, leader of the Labour Party, Reynolds' coalition partner; negotiations on a quid pro quo were held in October 1994.[10] On 11 November 1994, while the Brendan Smyth controversy was still in the news, Reynolds appointed Whelehan to the vacancy, at a cabinet meeting from which Labour ministers were absent.[10] Mary Robinson, the President of Ireland, confirmed his appointment the same day, and he took his oath of office from the Chief Justice on 15 November.[11] Over the next two days he heard one case and part of another.[12]

In the Dáil on 15 November 1994, Reynolds summarised the report he had received from Whelehan. It was then alleged that an extradition case involving another paedophile cleric, John Anthony Duggan, had been resolved promptly in 1992 after considering section 50 of the Extradition Act.[13][8] Whelehan argued that, although section 50 had been considered in the Duggan case, it had not in fact been applied. Reynolds stated he regretted having appointed Whelehan, and The Irish Times reported that Whelehan's successor as Attorney General, Eoghan Fitzsimons, had tried to persuade Whelehan to resign his judgeship.[14] Whelehan rebuffed Fitzsimons, but resigned on 17 November to "keep the judiciary out of politics".[2][14] Reynolds ordered Fitzsimons to report on his predecessor's conduct of the Smyth case.[15]

The political damage caused the Labour Party to leave the coalition, though without forcing an election;[10][16] instead it formed another coalition with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.[17] Controversy over Reynolds' unilateral appointment of Whelehan led to the establishment of an independent Judicial Appointments Advisory Board to make recommendations for the government.[18]

Later career

The rules of the Bar Council of Ireland normally prohibit former judges from working in a court of a level the same as or lower than the court on which they sat.[12][19] In Whelehan's case, this would have meant he could not work in any court, as the President of the High Court is ex officio a member of the Supreme Court.[12] The Bar Council voted in favour of making an exception to the rule for his case.[12]

The Irish Independent in 2007 reported that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board's recommendation of Whelehan for a judgeship had been rejected by Fianna Fáil governments.[2]


  • Daniel, Ann (2012-11-12). "Ch.5: A Scandal of Church and State". Scapegoats for a Profession. Routledge. pp. 97–122. ISBN 9781136650680. Retrieved 18 December 2014.
  • Oireachtas Sub Committee on Legislation and Security (1995). Inquiry into the Events of 11 to 15 November 1994. Government publications. Pn.1478. Dublin. ISBN 0-7076-1583-6. Archived from the original on 17 December 2014. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  • Whelehan, Harry (16 November 1994). Memorandum to the Taoiseach from the Attorney General : re: John Gerald Brendan Smyth (PDF). Official publications. Pn.1177.


  1. "Former Judges of the Supreme Court". Dublin: Courts Service. Retrieved 18 December 2014.
  2. Lysaght, Charles (20 May 2007). "Harry Whelehan". Irish Independent. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  3. Oireachtas Sub Committee (1995) p.13
  4. Kelleher, Lynne (21 February 2010). "Former AG Harry Whelehan speaks of regrets over X case". Sunday Tribune. Archived from the original on 28 February 2010. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  5. "Questions: Oral Answers — RUC Extradition Request". Dáil Éireann debates. 25 October 1994. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  6. Burke, John (3 February 2008). "DPP's dilemma". Sunday Business Post.[dead link]
  7. Oireachtas Sub Committee (1995) pp.21–23
  8. Smartt, Ursula (2014-03-21). Media & Entertainment Law. Routledge. p. 146. ISBN 9781317808169. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  9. Whelehan 1994, §7; "Extradition (Amendment) Act, 1987, Section 2". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 18 December 2014.
  10. Oireachtas Sub Committee (1995) pp.13–14
  11. Oireachtas Sub Committee (1995) pp.14–15
  12. Daniel 2012, p.115
  13. Daniel 2012, pp.109–114
  14. Kennedy, Geraldine (19 November 1994). "AG rebuffed in attempts to persuade Whelehan to resign". The Irish Times. p. 1. Retrieved 18 December 2014.
  15. Fitzsimons, Eoghan (2 December 1994). Report of Attorney General on investigation into Fr. Brendan Smyth (PDF). Official publications. Pn.1272. Department of the Taoiseach.
  16. Corcoran, Jody (14 September 2014). "Yes Fergus, you did describe actions of Albert as 'irredeemably corrupt'". Irish Independent. Retrieved 18 December 2014.
  17. Ferriter, Diarmaid (2005). The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000. Profile Books. p. 736. ISBN 9781861974433. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  18. "Judicial Appointments Advisory Board". Irish Independent. 27 January 2008. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  19. "Code of Conduct for the Bar of Ireland" (PDF). Bar Council of Ireland. 23 May 2014. §5.21. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 December 2014. Retrieved 22 December 2014. Judges of the Irish Courts, following retirement or resignation, who return to the Bar may not practice in a court of equal or lesser jurisdiction than the court of which they were a judge.
Legal offices
Preceded by
John L. Murray
Attorney General of Ireland
Succeeded by
Eoghan Fitzsimons
Preceded by
Liam Hamilton
President of the High Court
15–17 November 1994
Succeeded by
Declan Costello